N.W.T. man tells of encounter with nàhgą — the Tlicho sasquatch — following boat accident

A man who spent two days alone on an island after capsizing his canoe says he had a terrifying encounter with a mythical creature — and in the N.W.T.'s Tlicho region, he's not the first.

Tony Williah spent 2 days alone in the wilderness after falling in Lac La Martre

Tony Williah recovers at Stanton Territorial Hospital after he fell out of his boat on Lac La Martre near Whati, N.W.T. He was missing for two days before he was found July 19. He says he encountered a nàhgą — a bushman — on an island he swam to following the accident. (John Gon/CBC)

A man who spent two days alone on an island after capsizing his canoe says he had a terrifying encounter with a mythical creature — and in the N.W.T.'s Tlicho region, he's not the first. 

On July 17, after boating hours from Whati to the most northern tip of Lac La Martre, 42-year-old Tony Williah spotted some garbage in the water ahead of him — a plastic bag bobbing in the waves. Williah slowly brought his boat up beside it.

He reached in to get it but just as he did, a wave rocked the boat and he fell over the side and into the frigid water. He struggled to pull himself up back into the boat but his clothes, heavy with the weight of the water, kept pulling him down. He grabbed a plastic bag of supplies and began the long, tiring swim to shore.

"I managed to swim to an island at the end of the point," Williah told the CBC in Tlicho in his Yellowknife hospital room last week. 

He says that's when he encountered the bushman.

"All of a sudden, there was a big man standing beside me," he said. 

"He must have walked away because I heard some branches break throughout the bushes. I packed up my clothes in a white bag and readied myself to leave."

Williah swam away from the island and would spend another 48 hours alone in the wilderness.

When he was rescued by the RCMP and Canadian military, he would tell the story of his encounter with a bushman to whoever would listen.

Beings with powerful magic

For many in the Tlicho region the presence of bushmen, or nàhgą as they're known in the Tlicho language, is a reality that goes back thousands of years. The terrifying human-like creatures are known for stealing people from bush camps.

Tlicho columnist John B. Zoe described them in 2010 in N.W.T. News/North.

"Generally they are silent and for the unfortunate few who have seen them, these symptoms can be experienced: the back of the neck will tingle, skin will break into goose bumps, unstoppable shivers, the heart beats faster, accompanied by shortness of breath," Zoe wrote.

Tlicho elder Michel Louis Rabesca says he learned about nàhgą when he was a boy living in the bush with his parents. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

Tlicho elder Michel Louis Rabesca learned about nàhgą when he was a boy living in the bush with his parents.

"I got the story from my grandma because my grandma lived in the bush all the time," Rabesca says.

Rabesca says the Tlicho people and nàhgą have lived in the same region since time immemorial. He says nàhgą look just like human beings, and even wear modern clothes.

But, he says, nàhgą have powerful magic. They lure people toward them and steal them, never to be seen again. There's even stories of nàhgą stealing moose and caribou carcasses.

Rabesca says when he was little, his grandmother told him a story about one of his relatives who encountered a nàhgą and was never seen again.

'They took him'

In that case, the nàhgą appeared suddenly on an island.

"They used medicine power to push him into the shore. They did it. They took him," Rabesca says.

"So we never seen him. Never heard him again. Some people heard him talking, screaming 'Help,' but nobody can do nothing."

Nearly a century later, Rabesca had his own encounter with nàhgą while driving toward the Frank Channel Bridge between Rae and Edzo one morning decades ago. He says he saw a man standing in the middle of the narrow bridge.

Rabesca slowed down as he approached the man and then all of a sudden, the man jumped over the side. Rabesca hurried out of his vehicle to look over the side to see if the man was OK, but there was no one there.

"I didn't see him. I don't know what happened to him."

Rabesca says he's done his best to collect and pass on stories of nàhgą to the next generation. He said that as development pushes people further into the bush, interactions with bushmen will only increase.

About the Author

Hilary Bird

Reporter

Hilary Bird is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She has been reporting on Indigenous issues and politics for almost a decade and has won several national awards for her work. Hilary can be reached at hilary.bird@cbc.ca

with files from John Gon